Prepare for one of the weirdest stories you probably heard lately – The Abduction of Charlie Chaplin’s Body.
He was only 1.65 meters tall, and yet he was one of the tallest: the film comedian Charlie Chaplin. 88 years old, he died after an eventful life on Christmas Day 1977. Chaplin was buried in the cemetery of Corsier near Vevey, very close to the villa in which he had lived for decades. But here begins the bizarre story that could have come from one of Chaplin’s many films.
Two unemployed car mechanics
Chaplin’s so-called “eternal rest” in his grave does not last long. On the night of March 1 to 2, 1978, two men dressed in black scurry happen to be across the cemetery of Corsier with flashlights and shovels. Both are unemployed car mechanics, one 24 years old, the other 38. They dream of having a car repair shop with a lift and many customers.
To this end, they visit the grave of Charlie Chaplin that night, put their shovels to work, and dig until they can uncover the coffin of the world-famous comedian. The two men from Bulgaria and Poland lift the 135-kilogram oak coffin out of the ground, carry it across the cemetery, and load it into their waiting station wagon. They smell big business – but what to do with a heavy oak coffin containing a prominent corpse in the meantime?
The kidnappers find an inconspicuous cornfield near Noville on Lake Geneva, not far from the mouth of the Rhone. There they dig a large hole and bury the coffin with the film comedian. At first, they wait, so rumors run rampant after discovering the open grave: Were souvenir hunters at work? Was Charlie Chaplin’s Body to be buried in England, as he had once wished? Others suggest that Chaplin was actually Jewish and should have been buried in a Jewish cemetery.
But then – after ten weeks! – the kidnappers come forward: they demand a ransom of 600,000 dollars from Chaplin’s family for the mortal remains. In the meantime, word has spread that the celebrity’s grave has been dug up in Corsier. Therefore, the kidnappers are not the only ones demanding money: Free riders are coming forward and making demands on the descendants as well. The kidnappers have to prove that they are in possession of Chaplin’s coffin: They do this with a photo that shows the comedian’s coffin on the field next to a hole.
In doing so, they provide a first clue to the Vaudois police, who are investigating under high pressure. Chaplin’s widow Oona agrees to the ransom demand, but the family’s lawyer makes several phone calls to the kidnappers, supposedly to negotiate down the demanded sum.
However, the police have set up a trap and trace and are able to locate the kidnappers’ phone numbers. The grave robbers keep calling from other phone booths in Lausanne, so investigators are monitoring more than 200 phone booths in total. Exactly 76 days after the kidnapping, the police’s trap snaps shut: they arrest the two kidnappers on May 16.
Charlie Chaplin’s Body – a movie scene!
Unfortunately, the kidnappers can’t remember exactly where they buried the coffin in the field near Noville. That’s why the police have to use metal detectors and then find Charlie Chaplin’s Body, thanks to the metal handles on the casket. One really feels reminded of a movie scene!
Charlie Chaplin’s Body is finally buried a second time. This time, however, the coffin is embedded in concrete at a depth of two meters and covered with a concrete lid. As befits Charlie Chaplin, the macabre grave robbery is also honored on film: French director Xavier Beauvois is filming the material with Benoit Poelvoorde, Roschdy Zem, and Chiara Mastroianni. In 2014, the film “The Incredible Kidnapping of Charlie Chaplin” (“Le Racon de la Gloire”) will be released in theaters. In the film, Chaplin’s daughter takes pity on the kidnappers and shows herself to be lenient and generous.
In real life, the two grave robbers do not get away with it: they are brought before a court and sentenced for disturbing the peace of the dead and extortion: the ringleader to four and a half years in prison, his accomplice to 18 months on probation. Their theft of the Charlie Chaplins body sparked global manhunt.